By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Most of the material in this short post will be quoted from a wonderful article in the American Historical Review, Kathryn Olivarius’s “Immunity, Capital, and Power in Antebellum New Orleans” (2019). I recommend you grab a cup of coffee and read it in full, now or later; the article is gripping and very readable, and offers me, at least, a whole new perspective on the workings of the Slave Power. From the Abstract:
Antebellum New Orleans sat at the heart of America’s slave and cotton kingdoms. But it was also the nation’s “necropolis,” with yellow fever routinely killing about 8 percent of its population. With little epidemiological understanding of mosquito-borne viruses—and meager public health infrastructure—a person’s only protection against the scourge was to “get acclimated”: fall sick with, and survive, yellow fever. About half of all people died in the acclimating process. Repeated epidemics generated a hierarchy of immunocapital whereby “acclimated citizens” (survivors) leveraged their immunity for social, economic, and political power and “unacclimated strangers” (poor recent immigrants) languished in social and professional purgatory. For whites, acclimation was the quintessential demonstration of calculated risk-taking: that people had paid their biological dues, were worthy of investment, and could now justifiably pursue economic advancement in slave racial capitalism. For black slaves, who were embodied capital, immunity enhanced the value and safety of that capital for their white owners, strengthening the set of racialized assumptions about the black body bolstering racial slavery. By fusing health with capitalism, this article presents a new model—beyond the toxic fusion of white supremacy with the flows of global capitalism—for how power operated in nineteenth-century Atlantic society
“Immunocapital” is seen by Olivarius as a “Bourdiesian” “form of capital” (footnote 22). But the article does not delve into those forms, in particular social capital and symbolic capital. The two are often confused, and “immunocapital,” which fortuitously highlights the difference between them, turns out to be an interesting edge case.
First, I’ll expand on the New Orleans economy, yellow fever, and acclimation. After that, I’ll define social capital and symbolic capital, and show that immunocapital is the latter, not the former. Finally, the “rhyme” between Yellow Fever and the current plague will not have escaped the reader, and I will briefly comment on it.
Here is Olivarius on the New Orleans economy when chattel slavery was still a thing:
Recently, historians have situated New Orleans at the heart of “slave racial capitalism,” a system based on the violent commodification of enslaved black people. Despite its fixation on human bodies and environmental manipulation, this new historiography has largely ignored infectious disease, though sickness and death permeate the primary source record.
And though it has explored the numerous capitalist calculations made by white Deep Southerners—when, whom, and what to buy and sell; when, whom, and what to borrow against, insure, or collateralize—it has not explored the myriad calculations Deep Southerners made as a direct result of epidemic disease: when to quit the city; when to sell products to minimize disease exposure; how to project confidence to clients, creditors, and vendors during epidemics; who was “safe” to employ, buy from, or partner with. By ignoring disease’s pervasiveness and the randomness of the biological draw, these historians ultimately present an oddly linear vision of capitalist success: that with resolve, intelligence, ruthlessness, and a pinch of luck, all whites possessed the potential for success in slave racial capitalism, and that white people entered a fraught but fundamentally level playing field.
Now comes Yellow Fever:
Disease confounds this narrative. Over 550,000 whites immigrated to New Orleans between 1803 and 1860, hoping to make their fortunes, mostly through the ferocious exploitation of black people, hundreds of thousands of whom were sold at auction.13 The Louisiana Purchase triggered rapid demographic change: the city’s population doubled to 18,000 in 1809 with the influx of Haitian refugees; swelled to 102,000 by 1840 through European, American, and forced black migration; and surpassed 168,000 on the eve of the Civil War. But with mass immigration came crowd diseases—cholera, plague, influenza, consumption, and typhoid. “Yellow Jack” proved to be New Orleans’ most lethal tyrant, routinely eclipsing all other causes of death when it struck, doubling or even tripling the city’s (already high) average death rate. Some whites would become acclimated to yellow fever and accumulate wealth and power. But a large percentage—engulfed by a new microbial reality—ended up in a coffin. White Orleanians understood that social and economic ascent did not depend solely on hard work or black enslavement; first it depended on surviving yellow fever in a region plagued by death.
Spoiler alert: Is anyone else reminded of “lead your life” by “acclimation”? And is it turns out, acclimation as a form of capital can be turned into economic capital:
Immunity, whether real or imagined, had serious implications. It affected where people worked, what they earned, where they lived, and with whom they dealt. It affected white people’s ability to invest capital in slaves and create more capital through slaves. It decisively impacted a person’s ability to find stability, social acceptance, and a political voice. Considering all the impediments faced by the unacclimated, even Dr. Edward Hall Barton, president of New Orleans’ 1841 Board of Health, suggested that “the VALUE OF ACCLIMATION IS WORTH THE RISK!” Most newcomers quickly heeded this wisdom, not avoiding but actively seeking illness as a pathway to profits and respectability. As Connecticut immigrant Ralph Roanoke boasted while convalescent, “Victory had perched upon my banner; I was an acclimated citizen, and as such, received into full favor in the good city of New-Orleans, where they distrust every body, and call them non-residents, until they become endorsed by the yellow fever.”
But “victory” through acclimation was reserved for whites only. Though black immunity and white immunity were (and are) biologically identical, pro-slavery theorists argued that black people’s alleged natural resistance to this disease made their freedom, and independent capitalist participation, “scientifically” untenable. Rather, racial slavery was natural, even humanitarian, distancing whites from labor and spaces that would kill them. For whites, immunity was a prerequisite for citizenship and social advancement; for blacks, immunity increased their monetary value to their owners and strengthened the cycle of racialized assumptions about the black body that bolstered racial slavery. Black people could thus possess immunity, but not immunocapital, an expedient feint of logic that whites used to enrich themselves and reinforce their social and political dominance over blacks.
Antebellum New Orleans was the supercharged center of nineteenth-century yellow fever immunocapital, a major port on the great microbial highway circumnavigating the Atlantic Ocean.
But what form of capital is immunocapital? I proposed two candidates: social capital and symbolic capital. Let us look at each in turn.
First, social capital. From Bourdieu’s glorious Manet, which I am nowhere near finishing, pp. 303 et seq.:
Manet’s life may be described as a long accumulation of social capital…. I am not going to give you a rigorous definition of this concept but, in a nutshell, this is what is known as “connections,” along with the set of economic, cultural, and symbolic resources that can be acquired from lasting relationships with the range of agents that hold this capital.
Flexians, for example, are masters at monetizing social capital.
Second, symbolic capital. From Bourdieu’s Forms of Capital, pp. 101 et seq.
Symbolic capital is an authority acknowledged by all, or by the whole of a group. I intend to analyze the kind of social magic, designated by the notion of the performative, that enables certain social agents to use words, orders, or slogans to change the real social world…. In order to account for this magical activity, I must analyze the conditions that combine to constitute this charismatic authority or symbolic power…. Words, being social things, are real things; words are things and do things…. A group begins to exist when it has an acronym or a logo….. Another example which is of capital importance is the title: titles of nobility, academic qualifications, and titles of ownership. The title is the performance par excellence… These titles are evidently objectifications. They exist in the form of paper certificates; they can be framed and hung on the wall, because they are visible objects.
PMC love them their certificates. Now, let’s return to immunocapital. Immunocapital can be transformed into economic capital. Olivarius once more:
Assured of his acclimation, [German immigrant and cotton merchant Vincent] Nolte could leverage his existing capital—whiteness, maleness, business acumen—to acquire economic capital—cash, credit, slaves—with far more certainty. He could gamble ever-greater sums, restart after frequent financial panics, and command the labor of increasing numbers of other people, both black and white. Now confident that Nolte would not drop dead in October, bankers were happier to extend him credit.
Now let’s ask ourselves whether immunocapital is social capital or symbolic capital. Olivarius:
Immunity to yellow fever, ill-understood in the nineteenth century, was euphemized with phrases like “acclimation,” “seasoning,” and “creolization.” Acclimation meant surviving yellow fever, but to have immunocapital, Orleanians had to convince others of their immunity. Immunity was (and is) an objective, biological reality. But before vaccination or diagnostic blood testing, it was invisible and impossible to verify. It was thus subjective and , a matter of faith as much as fact. In a city where people routinely classified others based on physical appearance—as a quadroon, griffe, Irishman, bozale—Orleanians were socialized to recognize immunity cues. If a man was creole or had lived in the tropics for multiple years, society generally gave him the benefit of the doubt—he could pass as immune. If he was a newcomer, poor, foreign-born, or a drunk, he was assumed to be “unacclimated” until proven otherwise. As the Irish immigrant and former Georgia congressman Richard Henry Wilde aptly described it shortly before he died from yellow fever in 1847, “no one is regarded an Inhabitant or any thing but a mere Squatter, who has not passed a summer.”
Clearly, immunocapital is not function of “connections” or networking. Hence it is not social capital. Immunicapital is a form of “charismatic authority,” hence symbolic capital, albeit embodied in, well, a body, as opposed to a certificate to be hung on the wall. That’s an interesting result. Bourdieu, above, seems at least at one point to have regarded symbolic capital as a function of social capital; and surely symbolic capital can be accumulated within a network of connections. However, immunocapital is accumulated through infection and survival, not through social capital at all, which clarifies that matter. Others — including, apparently, Bourdieu regard symbolic and social capital as different levels of abstraction:
Though, symbolic capital is not situated on the same plane as the other species, since it puts the stress on the “symbolic” dimensions of social life, which creates an asymmetric role. Bourdieu even discusses its existence as a genuine sort of capital and seems to hesitate between the use of this concept and more indirect formulations (like “the symbolic effects of (all sorts of) capital”: Bourdieu, 1997).
In one of the definitions proposed by Bourdieu during the 1980s (Bourdieu, 1987), symbolic capital is, precisely, defined by any other sort of capital when it comes to its “recognition” or its “perception” according to particular “schemes.” As Bourdieu puts it: « symbolic capital is nothing but economic or cultural capital as soon as they are known and recognized, when they are known…
However, immunocapital’s charismatic authority as symbolic capital is standalone; hence, symbolic capital is not necessarily a function of any other form of capital, although it certainly can be. So we have a very interesting edge case. (It would be absurd, for example, to claim that the process of gaining symbolic capital in the form of a wall certificate was not intimately and essentially entwined with the social capital gained through attending the institution that granted the certificate.) And at this point, I must cease my Bourdeusian excursions and ask the Bourdieusians in the readership to correct any errors above.
Now let’s return, very briefly, to the present day. I do not have a theory of how our society, collectively, coped with the Covid pandemic (distressingly poorly, if the avoidance of mass infection is a bad thing). However, there are some suggestive similarities between New Orleans in the 1830s and the America of 2020-2023. To return to Olivarius:
Immunocapital provides a framework for recognizing the additional pressures—destructive and generative—exerted on society by epidemic disease and mass mortality. Indeed, betting on who was immune and who would survive past September added layers of speculation to a society essentially premised on gambling, both for pleasure and for business in commodity futures. Those at the top of New Orleans’ economic and political life, all (allegedly) survivors, obtained a de facto moral legitimacy, a tropical (if ecumenical) twist on Max Weber’s aristocracy of the elect: in their public willingness to roll the epidemiological dice and risk their lives, the immune elite had been endowed with both a practical and a moral right to thrive in slave racial capitalism, a harsh but essentially honest meritocracy.
Anyone else reminded of “personal risk assessment”? Here’s a famous example from Bob Wachter:
Here’s my bottom line (in case this 🧵is TL;DR):
I’ll begin eating inside and removing my mask in most indoor spaces when the local reported case rate falls below 5/100,000/day.
— Bob Wachter (@Bob_Wachter) August 28, 2022
Here, Wachter’s world view is “essential premised on gambling” (as one would expect in our financialized society). Further, the calculating the odds is the sort of “homework” the PMC love to do and consider meritorious. “Build your own dashboard,” forsooth!
More interestingly, many of the talking points of Covid minimizers — that is, the entire political class, the hegemonic PMC including many health care personnel, the press, and both political parties — seem to be acting as if, under Covid, immunocapital can be accumulated when, tragically — or karmically — it cannot. For example, “You are protected,” which morphed into “vaxed and done” maps very neatly to “acclimated.” Remember when people debated which vaccine was cooler? Symbolic capital! And of course, being vaxed became, in some cases, a condition of employment. Social capital! Then there is the “refuse to live in fear” trope, an assertion of charismatic authority. Symbolic capital!
Sadly, it’s not possibly to accumulate either social or symbolic capital by being infected with Covid, not even with repeated reinfections. Indeed — our society being what it is — we might speculate that this harsh reality is at the root of Covid minimization (“it’s just the flu”).
More speculatively, one might imagine this harsh reality is at the root of the rage against masking. Maskers are, by avoiding Covid, steadily and incrementally accumulating vascular and neurological advantages over the unmasked and those who accept Covid infection as “natural” (children, as well as adults). This accumulation of potential social capital might be seen as illicit, even a form of cheating, signaled as it is by, well, the symbolic “scarlet letter” of the mask, Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions having been stigmatized by the whole weight of the public health establishment. And why indeed should minimizers in a society as Darwinian as our own tolerate such accumulation, especially when their own attempts failed so very badly?
 I make no apology for citing Bourdieu in the context of medical — indeed, PMC — sociology, for which the massive resistance to aerosol transmission forms an promising field of study; see the estimable Trisha Greenhalgh here and here. In addition, we have Bourdieu stans in the readership, and I’ve been asked to return to him. In fact, I regret not having done so earlier.
 Yes, I bought some Bourdieu books from the now-vanished Book Depository. Most are out of print, so grab ’em while you can.
 I think there are some category or at least typological errors here, but I need to hustle along, so will not look into them.
 One might argue that one’s social capital enabled better treatment, hence survival, hence immunocapital. But not in New Orleans in the 1830s; there was no treatment for yellow fever. Hence the mortality rate.
 At this point we recall that Wachter chivvied his own wife into attending a writers’ conference that turned out to be a superspreading event. She still has Long Covid. Others prefer to Keep It Simple:
In this 🧵 Bob Wachter explains how to do a personal risk assessment to avoid getting COVID on a ✈️ or 🍽 inside a restaurant.
Confession: I got a little lost trying to do the math and follow the logic. I think I’ll just stick to wearing a 😷 indoors and avoiding crowds. pic.twitter.com/yGcNfdhWX9
— Virginia Buysse, PhD (@VirginiaBuysse) August 28, 2022